Palm Sunday takes place on the Sunday before Easter and is an important date for the church. It marks the beginning of Holy Week in the liturgical calendar and as such it is a moveable feast, meaning the date changes every year. Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday, commemorates Jesus Christ’s arrival at the city of Jerusalem as told in the bible in all four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Arriving in Jerusalem
We can read in the four gospels that in the week before Jesus died he entered Jerusalem for the last time. Some probably expected him to arrive on a horse as a traditional king would, however Jesus arrived on the back of a young donkey. The symbolism was that he came humbly and in peace, rather than to wage war and revolution.
As Jesus arrived people laid their cloaks on the floor before him, an act of respect that is most often reserved for kings and champions. Many also carried and waved palm branches as he rode past, palm branches being a symbol of victory.
History of Palm Sunday Celebrations
The earliest recorded celebration of Palm Sunday is in the Peregrinatio Etheriae (The Pilgrimage of Egeria), a fourth century diary of a pilgrimage to the holy land. In this account the writer recalls the events of Holy Week (or 'Great Week' as it is referred to) and on Palm Sunday describes a vigil and a reenactment of the procession from the mount of olives to the city.
Other early mentions of Palm Sunday celebrations are included in the Bobbio Missal, a book found in Italy in 1686 which contains the lectionary from seventh century masses including Palm Sunday.
How Palm Sunday is celebrated now
During a traditional Palm Sunday service palm branches are distributed to the congregation and blessed by the priest. Children might make palm branches in Sunday school and wave them too. Some churches hold reenactments of Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem by placing clothes on the floor of the church and having a member of the congregation play the role of Jesus arriving on a donkey.
Palm branches are often taken home, sometimes instead of branches, crosses made out of palm leaves are distributed to the congregation and taken home. People will hang their branches up in their houses to remind them of Holy Week and Jesus all year round.
Traditionally these palm branches or crosses would be burnt the following year and the ashes from the branches would then be used to draw crosses on the heads of the congregation on Ash Wednesday.
Many countries host big processions portraying the Passion of Christ. Palm Sunday, like all days during Holy Week, is a day for Christians to reflect on the significance of the sacrifices that Jesus made for them.
Click here to learn more about Holy Week and the other special days that lead up to Easter.
McGowan, A., & Bradshaw, P. F. (2018). The pilgrimage of Egeria: a new translation of the Itinerarium Egeriae with introduction and commentary. Liturgical Press.
Hen, Y., & Meens, R. (Eds.). (2004). The Bobbio Missal: Liturgy and Religious Culture in Merovingian Gaul (Vol. 11). Cambridge University Press.